QUESTION: I left a destructive relationship about a year ago, where both my partner and myself had been on a decline as individuals, and thus that toxicity manifested itself considerably in our interactions. I also left because he seemed too content to wallow in stagnation (despite him recognizing his own unhappiness), and my efforts to pull him out of his proverbial sinkhole were beginning to pull me down. Not to mention, as the relationship headed to its end, he used things that came from the vulnerable part of me to hurt me. Despite not wanting to and seeing him for more than what he thought himself to be capable of, I left.

Since then, we’ve had sparse, solely text-based contact in the last year. Even from how he writes, he seems like a changed person, and for the better. There were many values and concepts, which I held dear during our time together (and actually still do), which he berated me for in the past. However, he now has incorporated similar values into his core. I know that part of me still hasn’t forgiven him; thinking about him makes me feel a dull pain/anger. I feel like I was collateral damage on his personal journey and I don’t know how to reconcile with that.

I know that this difficulty is beginning to manifest in my life now. Anytime anyone or anything reminds me of the “negative” aspects of my relationship with him, I don’t engage and block myself off. However, I’m struggling between forgiveness and that delicate balance of allowing myself to be vulnerable to others while being protective of my core.

I want to let go. I know it’s what needs to be done. Just when I think that the dull pain/anger is no longer part of me, it comes back during unexpected moments. Much less so now, and with less frequency than the time closer to when we broke up, but it’s there nonetheless. My ex-partner has said over and over again that I’m someone he would like to continue to know and that he wants to have a friendship. Obviously, I’ve declined… but I declined with anger, despite wanting the same thing, because I fear the possibility of being vulnerable again with someone who has hurt me a great deal. Will this hurt always be a part of who I am and it’s just something I need to learn to live with? How do I learn to be vulnerable again?

ANSWER: We can not rush into forgiveness. All we can do is prepare the ground by facing and sitting with our own hurt. It is a natural tendency to want to bypass all that discomfort and go into forgiveness. Alas, that simply is not possible if the healing is to be authentic. Anger is a response to being hurt. Every time you feel that rage, dig deep into yourself and find the pain underneath it and sit and be informed by it. That is the quickest way to find the release you are looking for. Forgiveness comes of its own accord; we can not rush it along (although that is a favorite trick of the New Age movement and our egos). Once we have worked through the pain, forgiveness is the natural outcome.

Putting the focus on yourself and your part in self-betrayal is a potent place to reside in. Lines like ”my efforts to pull him out of his proverbial sinkhole” betrays caretaking, which is, in fact, denial of oneself. That can only lead to anger, since we are starving while trying to feed another. How far have you come in addressing this issue? How often do you resort to caretaking as a way of hiding yourself? What concrete steps are you taking in new relationships to keep your center and not fall into the need of the other?

You say, “I know that part of me still hasn’t forgiven him; thinking about him makes me feel a dull pain/anger”. Fair enough. But the issue here is not just about forgiving him, but yourself. What work are you doing to forgive yourself for putting yourself in that situation? These pains are unconsciously self-inflicted. You did the best you could with the understanding that you had at the time. Do your best on healing what made this take place, so you do not repeat the same pattern. Every time you catch yourself thinking or feeling pain around something he did or said, take it right back to yourself and examine your own hurt.

Lastly, you ask, “How do I learn to be vulnerable again?” How do you know that you have been vulnerable before, that now you want to do it again? Most of us will do all at our disposal to not be vulnerable. You spend a lot of what you write talking about your partner. I know there is hurt there, but that is not a sign of vulnerability. Do not confuse caretaking (which is hiding) with vulnerability. You are examining your life and asking the right questions. That can only lead to healing. The path to living our authentic self is long and arduous; one foot in front of another, while being emotionally honest, gets us there.